Two high-ranking California Air National Guard officers have successfully courted early support from San Diego's congressional leaders for a plan that would launch sophisticated helicopters from Brown Field in pursuit of drug smugglers crossing the Mexican border.
During two days of negotiations last week in the nation's capital, Brig. Gen. William Bates and Maj. Gen. Robert Hall met independently with Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Coronado) and Rep. Bill Lowery (R-San Diego) to recruit backers for their plan, which would cost an estimated $20 million annually, said John Palafoutas a spokesman with Hunter's office in Washington.
According to Palafoutas, the Air National Guard's proposal has been received favorably by the two congressmen, and also has the approval of Gov. George Deukmejian.
"Stemming the flow of illegal drugs is a top priority for the governor," said Tom Beermann, assistant press secretary for Deukmejian.
Palafoutas and Beermann said the Air National Guard is trying to rally support from politicians before seeking final approval and requesting the necessary equipment from the secretaries of the Air Force and Army.
The Air National Guard is trying to obtain 21 helicopters, equipped with sophisticated radar and cameras, from the Army and base them at Brown Field, the city-owned airfield in Otay Mesa. It would use the aircraft to conduct nighttime sweeps along the border to help law enforcement agencies catch drug smugglers, said Maj. Steve Mensik, a Guard spokesman in Sacramento.
Although the Air National Guard has been eagerly pursuing such a plan for the last three months, some of San Diego's political leaders said they had not been informed of the proposal and expressed concern about increased air traffic congestion at the border and more noise.
"There is already an enormous amount of law enforcement helicopters and planes flying all over that area . . . Border Patrol, Customs, Navy," said City Councilman Bob Filner, whose district includes Otay Mesa, the South Bay and the border areas. "Sometimes there's so much noise and activity around there that it feels like a war zone, or a place under siege.
"Of course, I encourage drug-fighting programs, but something like is going to impact our community a great deal," Filner said. "We would like to know what's going on."
Paul Downey, press secretary for Maureen O'Connor, said that the mayor is also concerned about the plan's impact on the community, but added, "In concept, the mayor has no problems with basing helicopters at Brown Field to interdict drug smugglers. Anything we can do to stomp drug smugglers is OK in her book."
Mensik said the Air National Guard is not trying to devise the plan covertly, and insisted that it does not want to approach local officials until the chances of securing the helicopters appeared optimistic.
If the proposal continues to gain support, he said, the Air National Guard could make a presentation to San Diego officials "as soon as next week or within a month."
"This is definitely a plan that we want to have under way in a matter of months, not years," Mensik said.
The Guard is trying to obtain 18 Apache helicopters and 3 Blackhawk helicopters--valued at more than $200 million--from the U.S. Army's deactivated inventory, Mensik said. "However, we don't have to buy the 'copters. We are simply having (them) rerouted to us.
However, Mensik said the Guard is planning to purchase three sophisticated radar systems for each of its C-130 Hercules airplanes. The radar systems would cost $3 million and would be used to help maintain surveillance at high altitudes.
"The Apaches, with their low-light TV can look through fog and dust," Mensik said. "They'll be sweeping along the border, and if they find something suspicious they'll notify the Blackhawks.
The Blackhawks, which can carry 12 to 15 passengers, will be used to shuttle in law enforcement officials, he said.
"We are not trying to take over the law enforcement agencies' role," Mensik said. "Our job is simply to assist them. Say, for example, a drug-smuggling Cessna darts under our Apache, we can get a Blackhawk--loaded with law enforcement officers--up in the air safely, quickly and in pursuit."
In addition to its role in the fight against drugs, Mensik said, the sophisticated hardware has other benefits. "The Apache is perfect for search-and-rescue missions. If someone gets lost in mountains at night, we can be of help."
The Guard approached Lowery and Hunter because each can be instrumental in the success of the plan, Mensik said.
Lowery, is the ranking minority member of the military construction sub-committee of the House Appropriations Committee. Mensik said the Guard would need his assistance to acquire money to build hangars and administrative offices at Brown Field.
"Congressman Lowery is very interested in having this kind of capability along the border," said his press secretary, Tina Kreisher in a telephone interview from Washington.
Hunter--a member of the House Armed Services Committee and an advocate of expanding the military's role in stemming the flow of drugs--wrote a letter to Air Force Secretary Edward C. Aldridge Jr. after his meeting Thursday with the Air National Guard officers, said the Hunter's spokesman Palafoutas.
"Congressman Hunter supports the overall plan and wanted to get an update from the secretary regarding the status of the possible use of the Air National Guard in drug interdiction," Palafoutas said.
He said if Aldridge approves the plan, the Army would be asked to transfer some its helicopters to the Guard.
"To the best of my knowledge there has been no formal plan presented," Palafoutas said, "The meetings were preliminary inquiries by the Air National Guard to use their forces for drug interdiction.
"It's much too early to discuss this with city officials, but obviously when that time comes, they'll be lots of questions, I'm sure," he said.